I’ve been reading articles about the pope’s resignation (or abdication, if you take seriously the pope’s claims to be a monarch), and all together they form a pretty mixed bag. It cannot help but dawn on one that no one really knows what’s going on, and very few seem to have any idea at all how things are going to play out from this point. One commentator, according to the Globe and Mail, a distinguished Hungarian Jesuit, said sotto voce that it was “the end of the pontificate.” To many people Ratzinger’s resignation came as a complete surprise. Even high ranking members of the hierarchy seem to have been taken off guard; yet others say that there were signs that this has been rumoured for at least a year. But, surprise or no surprise, the thing that gets me the most is Ratzinger’s claim that he did this for the good of the church, which makes him look a bit saintly, humble and actually caring, something that was in scant evidence during the nearly 8 years of his pontificate. Peter Stanford, over at the London Telegraph, even went so far as to say this:
There is no mystery, or smoking gun, but rather just extraordinary courage and selflessness.
Can anything be so simple in that hotbed of intrigue and double-dealing known as the Vatican, where inmates feed on each other daily, and spend lifetimes jockeying for power? I doubt it. The papacy is set up in such a way as to generate infighting and disloyalty, and some of the most unsavoury characters are raised to high office. Where it is taken seriously, spiritual power is much more corrupting than mere worldly authority. It was not for nothing that Lord Acton said, with the doctrine of papal infallibility (which he opposed) immediately in mind, that, while power corrupts, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
And that, sadly, is precisely what it has done. Ratzinger was only the latest confirmation of that. When he was elected in 2005 it was like putting the fox to guard the chickens. The sex scandals had been picking up steam, and the one man who was at the centre of that particular whirlwind – since, as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger had presided over the disposition of sexual abuse claims, and had mandated the silence of victims and perpetrators under threat of excommunication — was placed in a position where he could continue to hamper investigations into who knew what, when it was known, and what was done in consequence. The disdainful attitude of the papal representative to Ireland towards the commission to inquire into sexual abuse was a clear indication of the pope’s unwillingness to face the gravity of the offences and the part that he played in the cover up of those offences. It is hard to forget Vincent Nichols’ response (after the Ryan Report was issued in 2009) about the courage of the offenders to face up to their actions, with not a word about the suffering of the abused children involved in their crimes, and the church’s complicity in those crimes, by covering them up and shunting offending priests from parish to parish where they could offend again. Ratzinger could only have dealt with the crimes had he not been involved at a crucial level himself in their commission.
And then to have made a state visit to the United Kingdom during which he was at pains to condemn, by associating it with the Nazis, the growing activist movement towards unbelief, which has been one of Ratzinger’s constant refrains during his pontificate, condemning atheists as not altogether human, and characterising all unbelievers as a danger to morals and civilisation, puts the icing on the cake of his betrayal of reason. For this came from a man who was at the centre of a cover up of crimes against humanity that offend the very conscience of humanity. Are those now praising the pope for his humility and selflessness in giving up the papacy simply forgetting what is perhaps the defining event of his entire papacy? He spent eight years consolidating the power of the papacy and its hold over the hierarchy — and thus, of course, over the whole church — while fending off any real investigation of his role and the role of the CDF in the cover up of sexual abuse by priests and bishops. Can anything be more egotistical and self-serving than that?
I have said before, and have been called on the point by a number of people, that what has put the Vatican in this mess is the Vatican I declaration of the infallibility of the pope. This, I was smartly told by those who wish to defend this completely idiotic doctrine, is limited to those occasions when the pope speaks in a special way (speaking ex cathedra, as the official language has it) on matters of faith and morals. But no one has adequately defined when the pope is speaking in this special way. So, when Paul VI – who followed the genuinely caring John XXIII, who called the Second Vatican Council in part to undo the harm done by the First Vatican Council – was faced with the recommendation of his commission on birth control that the church change its stand, he demurred, because this would have immediately called his own authority and that of the papacy into question; for in order to change the church’s stand on this matter, he would have had to accuse of misleading the faithful, a previous pope, Pius XI, who, in his encyclical, Casti Conubii (Chaste Marriage), had condemned artificial birth control as contrary to the natural moral law. And so Paul VI (Montini) added his own contribution to the growing case for the infallibility of the church’s stand on contraception, the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which supplemented Pius XII’s Humanae Generis. It is interesting and perhaps significant to note, that this chain of papal pronouncements on contraception was precipitated, in the first place, by the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in 1930, which had decided in favour of artificial birth control in some circumstances. And so Paul VI added his voice to the growing chorus of papal voices condemning contraception, a decision which has painted the papacy into a corner from which it cannot escape.
All this was the direct outcome of the declaration (in 1870) of the pope’s infallibility, as Garry Wills notes in an op-ed in the New York Times today. Entitled “New Pope? I’ve Given Up Hope,” Wills states clearly what I have been saying for some time, that
[f]rom that point on , even when he was not making technically infallible statements, the pope was thought to be dealing in eternal truths. A gift for eternal truths is as dangerous as the gift of Midas’s touch. The pope cannot undo the eternal truths that he has proclaimed.
Nor can his successors. That popes are aware of this tendency has been adequately demonstrated in the hard-line positions that both Ratzinger and Wojtyła took on the issue of women in ministry, making it all but impossible to reverse course on something that is of vital importance to the church today if it is to hold onto its members in the developed world. Amongst more credulous and less well educated people in the so-called Third World, especially in Africa and South America, the pope’s writ still seems divine, but people from Europe and the English-speaking democracies are much less likely to accord this kind of final authority to popes or to anyone else. Which is why the Roman Catholic Church in the United States looks more and more like a part of the Tea Party at prayer, and is so widely disdained by so many of its well-educated members, who are apparently leaving in droves. In order to staunch the bleeding the church will have to give up something, and it is in no position to do so: thus Garry Wills’ despondent “I’ve given up hope.”
However, there may be more to this resignation of a pope than meets the eye. Perhaps Ratzinger is giving up because he is old and increasingly feeble. But it should not be forgotten that in 2010, on the occasion of the pope’s state visit to Britain, the distinguished human rights lawyer and judge, wrote a careful, nuanced, and highly damaging report regarding the pope’s involvement in crimes against humanity. Apparently Geoffrey Robertson, the author of that study, has recently said on BBC News Night (thank you Haggis) that his resignation from the papacy will make Ratzinger much more open to legal indictment for those crimes by the International Criminal Court at the Hague, which was established for precisely such cases. As Robertson says:
That the Vatican has escaped serious international censure, let alone prosecution, for its behaviour is something of a wonder. Any other organisation, and any state, that turned a blind eye to the molestation of so many children, and that not only refused to punish the perpetrators but set them up to re-offend, would be condemned at the UN and at international conferences, would be made the subject of vitriolic reports by Amnesty International and by Human Rights Watch, and there would be calls to refer the cause to the ICC Prosecutor. [166-167]
Now that what Robertson calls “the doddering decency of Benedict XVI” is doddering off the world stage, he may be open to precisely the kind of prosecutorial activism that Robertson imagined might have been possible (as a very long shot) even while he remained pope.
What such a prosecution would remind us of is the fact that this pope was largely a failure in practically every respect. Though some have seen him as a decent man (more on that in a moment), some of his actions have not only been doddering, but bordering on the criminal. To have failed to condemn with greater vigour Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement, who sexually abused children, including his own, fathered with at least two women, as well as seminarians in the order’s seminaries, and to have favoured Cardinal Sodano, Maciel’s greatest supporter (after Pope Wojtyła himself) in the Vatican, is simply beyond reason. The man should have been turned over to the police for indictment and trial, and yet he ended his days peacefully, though in disgrace. According to the Wikepedia entry,
the Vatican denounced Maciel for creating a “system of power” that enabled him to lead an “immoral” double life “devoid of scruples and authentic religious sentiment.”
Compare that with Robertson’s denunciation of the Vatican’s system of power that enables the Vatican to keep its officials above the law and out of harm’s way and you will find an indication of the trouble at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church. Sodano is now dean of the College of Cardinals, and though unable to vote on account of his age, will preside over the Conclave to elect a new pope – Sodano, the same man who gave unstinting support to Maciel, and benefitted financially from his support, even when he must have known of Maciel’s undoubted crimes. It is hard to believe that the corruption at the centre of the church is not part of the reason why someone like Ratzinger, who is doubtless a decent man at heart, just as Robertson says, yet a man whose position forced him to betray that decency, now finds the burdens of office so hard to bear. Try as he might, the trappings of ancient authority, and the trap of infallibility made a creative ministry impossible. If one must continue to shore up crumbling walls against the storms of protest against a church which simply cannot adapt to the modern world, when one’s life has been spent enmeshed in the nets of intrigue and half-truths of which one is oneself also partly the author, because the traps of infallibility and absolutism demand the sacrifice even of one’s ideals, the time must come when the toll on the conscience becomes too great, and retreat is the only possible answer. What Ratzinger might have done is to try to see what ideals might yet do, in which case the shock would have been greater, but the achievement would have been greater still.